Ballot proposal will ask for more funds at lower tax rate

New elementary part of May 7 bond request

Crestwood Elementary is one of four schools that would get additional classrooms under a $174 million bond proposal

Rockford voters are being given an unusual request: to approve $185 million worth of school improvements over the next 10 years — including a new elementary school and a reconfigured high school — at a lower tax rate than they are paying now.

School officials began meeting with parents this week to lay out information on the proposal, which will separately request a $174 million bond issue and an $11 million sinking fund on the May 7 election ballot.

Rockford Superintendent Michael Shibler

However, approval would not increase the district’s current 8.5-mill debt retirement tax rate — which has held steady since 1989 — but decrease it to 7.5 mills. The reason: refinancing of current bond payments, along with a steady increase in Rockford property values, will lower the current rate by 3.5 mills as of July, said Superintendent Michael Shibler. So even with the 2.5 mills requested by the proposals, the net tax rate would be reduced by 1 mill.

Though previous bond issues have been approved without raising the tax rate — including a $76.1 million bond approved in 2014 — this is the first time the district could lower tax rates while raising needed revenue in his 30-year tenure, Shibler said. He called it “an incredible opportunity.”

“I challenge anybody to find a district that has passed a bond issue and actually given a property tax cut of 1 full mill to their constituents,” Shibler said.

He said the new funds are needed to accommodate Rockford’s continuing residential growth, with enrollment projected to grow by 500 to 600 students in the coming decade.

“Many people buy homes here because of the school district,” Shibler said. “We’re preparing, to the best of our knowledge, for the growth of Rockford Public Schools for the next 10 years.”

Getting More for Less

Rockford voters will be asked May 7 to approve two requests for Rockford Public Schools:

  1. A bond proposal yielding $174 million over 10 years for capital projects, to be funded by an expected tax levy of 2 mills initially.* Projects would include a new elementary school, additional classrooms in four buildings, new classroom furniture in all schools and replacement of an aging bus fleet.
  2. A sinking fund generating $11 million over 10 years, at a levy of 0.5 mills, would pay for improvements such as athletic facility and playground upgrades, better energy and security systems, improved parking lots and new roofs. Sinking funds generate revenue yearly as they are collected.

If both were approved, the district’s capital-fund tax rate would be reduced to 7.5 mills from the current 8.5. That’s due to a 3.5-mill decrease in the district’s debt retirement millage rate as of July 2019, caused by refinancing existing bonds and increased district property values.

Approval would decrease property tax on a $200,000 home by $100 per year, due to the reduction in millage rate by 1 mill.

*Language on the ballot proposal states the 2019 millage rate would be 3.01, but the district calculates it will actually be 2 mills based on increased property values.

For more information, go to the district website.

Accommodating District Growth

Approved by the school board in late January, the ballot proposals emerged from a 10-year master plan for capital improvements. School officials consulted with area builders, municipal leaders and enrollment experts. Input from staff, parents and community members produced a wish list of improvements totaling $485 million, which Shibler and the school board pared down to the $185 million being requested.

High on the needs list is a new elementary school for the district’s growing western portion. New housing developments such as the Saddle Ridge subdivision are sending more children to schools like Valley View Elementary and North Rockford Middle School, forcing them to add portable classrooms.

The bond would raise about $32 million for a new elementary school, on 25 acres the district owns between Saddle Ridge Drive and Edgerton Avenue NE, south of 12 Mile Road NE. Designed to hold about 700 students in grades K-5, it would be opened by fall 2022, Shibler said.

In the bond’s second phase, 18 classrooms would be added to North Rockford Middle, while Crestwood and Roguewood elementary schools would also get more.

Two Buildings = One School

The Freshman Center would get eight more classrooms, as part of a plan to form a two-building high school on the same campus with Rockford High School.

While residents in the past have expressed a desire for a second high school, that would be cost-prohibitive without forcing major cuts elsewhere, Shibler said. Besides construction outlays, it would cost about $3.2 million a year to operate a new high school, he said.

Just how the Freshman Center and high school would be redesigned as one school will take some study and wouldn’t be implemented for six or more years, Shibler said. But along with a new wing now being built onto Rockford High, the redesign will provide programming both for college-bound students and those preparing for skilled trades, he said.

“We have such an outstanding opportunity for kids in our current 10-12 building,” Shibler said. “We want to keep those opportunities, and be able to afford those opportunities, within a reality of a high school in two buildings on one campus.”

Shibler plans to meet with about 60 parent and community groups, including Meadow Ridge Elementary parents this Thursday, March 7.

CONNECT

Overview of proposed projects to be funded

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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